King Henry the Eighth of England had a king size problem. He was desperate to marry a second wife and the Roman Church refused to annul his first marriage. Frantic, he turned to the learned Jews of Italy.
The King of Spain’s Daughter
Our story begins in 1457 just after Henry VII (Henry VIII.s father) seized the crown of England from Richard III during a bloody civil war. To bolster his flimsy claim to the crown he made sure that his firstborn, Arthur, was born in Winchester, the site of old time Camelot where Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table had their legendary adventures. Later, he concluded the Treaty of Medina del Campo (1489) with the newly united Spanish kingdom, simultaneously betrothing three-year-old Arthur to four-year-old Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the infamous Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile who expelled their Jewish subjects three years later. The young couple corresponded in Latin (their only common language) and had a communication problem some years later due to the different Latin pronunciations they had picked up from their respective tutors.
Henry VIII served as ring bearer at the young couple.s wedding in November 1501, little dreaming that he would be standing with the bride, his sister-in-law, under the canopy within a very short time. That year, Arthur and his bride caught the .sweating illness. (the English Sweate), a mysterious epidemic illness that first appeared in 1485 and disappeared forever after 1578, characterized by hot sweating and killing its victims within hours. Arthur died and Catherine survived.
Henry VII was unwilling to return Catherine and her giant dowry to the Spanish King. Initially he considered marrying her himself (an idea heavily opposed by the young girl.s mother who did not want her to suffer a second widowhood). In the end, he married her to his second son and heir, Henry VIII. As the years passed, a cloud settled over Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage for they had only one daughter, Mary Tudor, and no male heir. Henry VIII was concerned that his shaky claim to the throne might make his daughter unacceptable as a future queen, especially as no female monarch had ruled over England since the thirteenth century.
He was also terrified that his lack of sons might be a Biblical curse, for he had married his brother.s wife (albeit with papal dispensation). Does the Torah not forbid this (Vayikra 18:16) and warn that anyone contravening the prohibition will be childless (ariri, ibid 20:21)?
Had a Wife and Couldn’t Keep Her
The solution seemed simple. Divorce Catherine and marry someone else. But things weren’t so simple, for as if to prove its moral superiority over Jews the Church had outlawed divorce. A solution was still possible as the pope had authority to abrogate the rules besha’as hadechak and could easily annul Henry.s marriage. After all, had the pope not recently provided this exact service for the king.s brother-in-law, the duke of Suffolk?
This simple plan was torpedoed by politics. Charles V, head of the Holy Roman Empire, had sacked Rome in 1527 making the pope his prisoner, and inconveniently, Charles V happened to be the nephew of Isabella of Castile (Catherine.s mother) who obviously vetoed anyone divorcing her daughter. So for Pope Clement VII to issue an annulment of Catherine’s marriage was a non-option.
Henry VIII began amassing evidence to make a case that his marriage to Catherine was null and void since he had married a sister-in-law (eishes ach). To this end, he had teams of scholars study a mass of clerical and halachic evidence to clinch his case with the help of a large research library of books and manuscripts.
Hearing of the recent printing of the Bomberg Talmud, the first complete set of the Talmud that was printed between 1520 and 1523, he ordered a copy sent to England since not one Talmud had survived England’s 1290 expulsion of its Jews.
He also sent a delegation to Italy to inquire what learned Jews there had to say about his problem, hoping that judicious bribes might produce arguments in his favor. Was he actually married to Catherine or not? While the Torah (Vayikra 18:16, 20:21) warns against marrying a sister-in-law, there is also a mitzvah (Devarim 25:5-6) to marry the wife of a deceased brother who left no bonim (literally, sons). So while Henry VIII may have been forbidden from marrying Catherine his sister-in-law, perhaps the mitzvah of yibum required him to marry her since she had no sons. On the other hand, the custom of Ashkenazi Jews is never to do yibum under any circumstances.
Of course the whole question was moot because neither the prohibition against marrying a deceased brother.s wife nor the mitzvah of yibum applies to non-Jews. Anything the Jewish scholars told the kings. agents was lidivreihem . in other words, if you think the king is bound by Torah law, the halachah will be such and such.
There Was a Crooked Man
Richard.s agents found Jewish experts who supported the king.s stance. One of these was Marco Raphael, a rabbi who had converted to Catholicism. Two others were Rav Kolonymus ben David and his son-in-law, the rabbi, physician and mekubal, Rav Eliyahu Menachem Chalfan, grandson of the Maharik. They argued that due to the prohibition of eishes ach, Henry VIII’s marriage with Catherine was null and void since Jews no longer observed the mitzvah of yibum.
Joyously, the agents wrote back to the king that “the Levitial law [that forbids marrying a sister-in-law] has always [been in effect] and never abolished nor weakened; on the other hand, the law of Deuteronomy was never in force except when the conditions therein expressed were present. and that it was never observed, even by the Jews themselves, after the destruction of Jerusalem, except in matters concerning inheritance.” According to Jewish scholarship, the king could safely enter a second marriage.
But there were dissenters. Italian scholars such as Rav Modena Yaakov Raphael ben Yechiel Chaim Peglione and the prominent Dr. Yaakov Mantino, lecturer in medicine at Bologna University, insisted that the mitzvah of yibum certainly applied in current times and that the king.s marriage was valid. Late in 1530, one of Charles V.s agents, Micer Mai, happily reported to him that the second opinion seemed indisputably correct: “Your majesty will be glad to hear that here this year, among the Roman Jews, one has been compelled to marry the widow of his brother, who has died without children, a thing which is not only not prohibited, as we maintain, but is actually enjoined by Jewish law.”
Meanwhile, in March 1530 Pope Clement issued a bull forbidding ecclesiastical judges and lawyers from speaking or writing of Henry VIII.s marriage altogether and suspended final judgment on the case for six months. In reaction, Henry began arguing that no Englishman should be subservient to Rome and the issue should be decided by the churchmen in England. Rebellion was in the air.
In November 1530, Charles V.s agent, Micer Mai warned that the converted Marco Raphael was trying to make his way to Henry.s court and with his presence in England, “Parliament may be persuaded to grant that which he has so long threatened, namely his marriage, de facto [to a second wife].” But by the time Raphael slipped through Mai’s agents and reached England he seems to have changed his mind. He now advised the king to simply take a second wife, an idea the king reportedly found so extravagant and absurd that he has openly declared to the Jew himself that this will not do, and that he must devise some other means of getting him out of the difficulty.
In earlier years Henry had been so devoted to the Catholic Church that in reaction to Martin Luther.s attack against the Church, Henry had penned a spirited counterattack that earned him the papal title of .Defender of the Faith.. But now, Henry.s personal imbroglio with Rome led to his founding the renegade Anglican Church. On May 28, 1533, he cut the Gordian knot, broke with Rome, and had his Archbishop, Thomas Cranmer, declare the marriage to Catherine of Aragon void and his marriage to his second wife, Anne Boleyn, lawful.
The Library that Jack Built
By the time the Bomberg Shas reached England, Henry VIII had already solved his marital problems by switching religions. The volumes were beautifully bound by Oxford University and later sent to the Westminster Abby where they gathered dust for centuries. In 1956, the Jewish bibliophile, Jack Victor Lunzer of Golders Green, London, who was in the process of amassing a collection of 13,000 vintage seforim later described by Sotheby’s as “the finest private library of Hebrew books and manuscripts in the world,” chanced upon the mint condition volumes in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Abbey refused to part with the priceless Shas for almost twenty-five years. On April 10, 1980, Lunzer boarded a plane in Sierra Leone on a motzai Shabbos, having delayed his departure because of Shabbos, and was handed a copy of the London Daily Telegraph.
There his eye fell upon a brief announcement that the Westminster Abbey foundation charter dated December 28, 1065 had been sold to a New York dealer, but that an export license would not be granted if a British buyer offered to purchase it for the same price by midnight July 1. First thing Monday morning, he phoned the Abbey and arranged to buy the charter on its behalf in exchange for the Bomberg Shas plus a substantial donation. “I shall never forget how easily the opportunity to acquire the Westminster Abbey Talmud might have been missed . but for a chance copy of the Daily Telegraph in West Africa,” Lunzer reminisced in later years.
In 2009, he decided to sell his vast collection due to encroaching old age, and last December Sotheby’s sold it en bloc to an unknown buyer. Only time will tell whether this priceless relic of King Henry.s dalliance with halachah has sunk from public view forever.
(Sources: David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England 1485-1850, Oxford University Press, 1996. Lunzer story: from article in the London “Jewish Chronicle.”)